Our Profiting from Thought Leadership Study shows that the pandemic has put acute pressure on thought leadership marketers across the world to up their game, and in most cases with the same or fewer resources. Part 1 of 4.
For the second time since 2018, Bob Buday and Jason Mlicki have surveyed thought leadership marketing and other professionals in business-to-business companies on their strategies and tactics. As with our 2018 survey, we had help from our research partner, Phronesis Partners, which fielded both surveys.
We conducted the survey this fall, in what now appears will be the middle of the Covid-19 virus outbreak. As you’ll read in this report, the pandemic has put acute pressure on thought leadership marketers across the world to up their game, and in most cases with the same or fewer resources.
Unlike our 2018 survey of North American companies, this one is global. Some 70% of participants work in North America, 19% are in the UK and Europe, and 11% are in Asia-Pacific. They come largely from six industries: management consulting, IT services, tech, financial services, healthcare/pharma, and accounting. Additional information on the demographics and our research process can be found at the end of this document.
Our findings are far-ranging and, we believe, far-reaching. They cover how senior executives in B2B companies regard thought leadership marketing, the thought leadership strategies their marketers devise, research and other content development practices, website presentation of content (especially interactive), social media and other marketing tactics, and marketing/sales force collaboration.
Because we explored a wide range of thought leadership issues, we will release our findings over four reports, from December through March 2021:
- Part 1: The Global State of Thought Leadership Marketing in the Pandemic (December 2020) Download printable PDF
- Part 2: The Uncommon Methods of the Best Thought Leadership Marketers (January 2021). We’ll compare the most effective marketers (18% of our base) against the least effective (25%)
- Part 3: Comparing Thought Leadership Practices in Consulting, IT Services, Tech, Financial Services and Health Care (February 2021)
- Part 4: Comparing Thought Leadership Practices by Company Size and Region of World (March 2021)
Part 1: The Global State of Thought Leadership Marketing in the Pandemic
- The pandemic and company management have put acute pressure on thought leadership marketers to do better with less. Nine out of 10 say top managers in their firms see thought leadership as important to revenue growth. And twice the number of participants say company leaders view thought leadership as being even more important in the pandemic than say their leaders view it as less important. Nonetheless, two-thirds have frozen or reduced spending on thought leadership.
- Creating compelling content time and again is very difficult, despite the fact that most companies have explicit internal guidelines on what constitutes quality, and that most enforce those guidelines.
- Marketers view primary research as foundational content for thought leadership campaigns, but there’s little agreement on what type of research is more important than others. And most design research to break new ground in the marketplace rather than confirm what their companies already believe.
- What’s most important for thought leadership success: quality content, marketing of that content, how content is presented, or sales follow-through in thought leadership campaigns? When asked to choose which of those four matters most, the majority of marketers believe it is the way they market content.
- While they’ve existed for several years in digital journalism, data visualization and interactive content have finally arrived in B2B thought leadership. Between a third and a half of companies surveyed are using “scrolly-telling,” interactive surveys, interactive charts and animated graphics on their websites.
- In their most successful thought leadership campaign since 2018, a surprising majority used just a few marketing channels and promotional tools. Large multimedia marketing campaigns in thought leadership are the exception rather than the rule.
Thought Leadership in the Crisis
When the pandemic of 2020 began spreading throughout Europe and North America in March, the global consultancy giant McKinsey & Company’s thought leadership publishing operations already were armed and ready to weigh in. The company has published more than 300 articles on the virus, starting with “COVID-19: Implications for business,” published March 2 and updated 34 times since. As 2020 draws to a close, the consulting firm has explored seemingly every possible aspect of the pandemic – from its overall impact on business and the problems for the U.S. healthcare system, to the emotional effect on employees, the state of philanthropy, and the downturn in the global fashion industry. But then you see new angles, and you wonder whether the firm is anywhere near finishing its COVID commentary.
Clearly, it isn’t. And that is good news for the firm, and for everyone who must deal with the pandemic’s ever-changing impacts. The impact of McKinsey’s prolific publishing on the pandemic has been significant. By early summer, the firm said its COVID-related content was its best-read ever.
Exhibit 1: McKinsey’s COVID Content Explosion
Yet McKinsey is an anomaly. It is in a distinct minority of B2B companies – only a quarter — that has hit the accelerator in thought leadership since the pandemic arrived. Our research on 314 B2B companies shows that only 25% have been publishing more content since the pandemic hit than they did same 2019 timeframe. (Exhibit 2.) In fact, a much higher percentage — 44% — are publishing less content, while about a third have kept their volume about the same as last year.
Exhibit 2: Most B2B Companies Have Turned Down the Volume
The Pandemic Shrinks or Freezes Most Thought Leadership Budgets and Staffs
Indeed, a chill has hit thought leadership. Across the B2B sectors that we surveyed, about two-thirds of companies have either frozen or reduced their thought leadership budgets this year (as a percent of company revenue). (Exhibit 3.) Only one sector had more companies that had increased (rather than decreased) their spending: technology (which includes software, hardware and electronic components firms). Two sectors had the same number of firms that increased as decreased their thought leadership budgets: IT services and accounting.
Exhibit 3: Give Me More for Less
How much do they spend on thought leadership marketing (all expenses, include research and marketing)? The average was 5.5% of revenue in 2020, which is nearly identical to the number in our 2018 survey of North American B2B firms (5.4%). Note that those percentages are about half the total marketing budget for U.S. B2B companies tracked in another survey this year by Duke University’s business school.
The budget tightening could also be seen in their answers to our question about staffing trends. The same percentage of companies (28%) have upsized their staffs as have downsized them.
So how big are those staffs? The average staff size was 55; the median was 23. (Note: There was a big difference between the average and median revenue of our survey participants: $1.1 billion vs. $96 million.)
Glass Half Full: Most Say They’re Effective at Thought Leadership Marketing
Asking any professional, marketing or other, how good they are at their game is a loaded question. The tendency is to overrate one’s effectiveness. Yet we believe we gathered more-objective-than-expected answers to our question about how effective their companies are at thought leadership marketing.
In our questionnaire, we defined thought leadership marketing effectiveness as generating strong market awareness and leads. While a slight majority said “effective” (somewhat or extremely), less than one in six said extremely effective. In fact, a higher percentage said their firms were ineffective than said extremely effective.
The sector with the highest percentage saying “extremely effective” was management consulting, following by IT services. Even then, less than 30% in those two sectors said their thought leadership marketing was extremely effective. Yet that percentage was at least double the number in financial services.
Exhibit 4: How Good is Their Thought Leadership Game? It Depends on the Sector
A Lackluster Ability to Measure Thought Leadership’s Impact (Especially on Revenue)
To be sure, that effectiveness measure is qualitative, not quantitative. We wanted to know what quantitative measures they used to gauge effectiveness as well. So we asked whether they used six common metrics:
- Downloads of thought leadership content from their website
- The number of website views of that content
- Inquiries resulting from viewing that content
- Requests for proposals stemming (as least in part) from viewers who read that content
- The win rate on those RPFs
- The monetary value of that client work that they won
Not unexpectedly, two-thirds of thought leadership marketers can’t show their work has played a tangible role, large or small, in generating revenue. Slightly less than half can tie thought leadership marketing activities to requests for proposals, or their conversions to project wins. And disappointingly, only slightly more than half can tie their activities to inquiries. Nearly six out of 10 do measure how many people are viewing their thought leadership content. (Exhibit 5.)
Exhibit 5: Where’s the Money in Thought Leadership? Few Can Show It
How They Grade Themselves on Core Capabilities That Lead to Revenue
From our long experience in helping companies and people in them become known in their markets for their expertise, we have found a number of capabilities to be essential. Six are particularly crucial:
- Investing prudently: Invest appropriately across the company and within service lines and regions. You don’t want to starve deserving practices and future growth areas.
- Developing high-quality content. Without compelling new ideas, marketing older ones isn’t likely to generate great client and media interest.
- Conducting well-staged and -executed marketing campaigns. Great content alone won’t get noticed widely or quickly. Strong marketing means getting great content in front a sizable proportion of the target audience.
- Thought leadership selling: Make salespeople highly knowledgeable about those campaigns and show them how to use the content to move conversations along with prospective clients.
- Having patient champions at the top: Building strong capabilities in the areas above takes time and skill. Perhaps most of all, it takes a patient leadership team to let their thought leadership research and marketing professionals build the programs or improve on those in place.
- Turning thought leadership into new offerings: When companies conduct groundbreaking thought leadership research, they have the opportunity to renew old practices and sometimes even launch new services that address market needs they hadn’t addressed before.
On these six counts, less than a third of the companies on average said they were highly effective. (Exhibit 6.)
Exhibit 6: Not Many “A’s” for Key Capabilities, But Fewer “D’s” and “F’s”
While a higher percentage (in the 30% range) said they were “somewhat effective,” and with the percentages of highly and somewhat effective together painting a better picture, it still says to us that all six areas need substantial improvement. Still, there were a greater number of companies that were highly or somewhat effective than those that were somewhat or highly ineffective in all but one area: investing the right amount on thought leadership across their companies.
To be sure, some of them are less within thought leadership marketing’s control than others. While staging and executing marketing campaigns are largely within marketing’s control, apportioning investments across a firm (especially a big company) is often out of their hands. Industry, regional or practice units often control their own marketing budgets.
Producing great content? That can depend on the quality of a firm’s experts, and the amount of time they give marketers to capture their expertise.
Salespeople who are highly informed about a thought leadership campaign that’s about to unfold and equipped to mine it? What if they won’t give marketing the time to prepare them?
With that in mind, it’s less surprising that a minority of thought leadership marketers view their firms as being highly capable in these areas.
Yet Top Management Has High Hopes for Thought Leadership
While the marketers we surveyed did not give their companies stellar marks on those core thought leadership capabilities, they were far more positive about their top management’s perception of the importance of what they’re trying to achieve with thought leadership.
Nearly nine out of 10 told us their company’s management views thought leadership marketing as important to revenue growth. (Exhibit 7.) Less than one in 25 said company leaders view it as having zero value to increasing the top line. What’s more, when we asked them whether the pandemic changed their views about that, more than two-thirds said top management sees thought leadership as more important now, versus less than a third who said their bosses see it as less important.
Exhibit 7: Top Management is Sold on the Need for Thought Leadership
Why is top management sold on thought leadership? In part, it may be because six out of 10 firms said they get a price premium because they’re recognized as thought leaders in their domains.
What is this price premium? For the firms that get them and know how much it is (a total of 191 firms), the average was 13%.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that a company’s top management team intimately knows what it takes to be seen as thought leaders.
The Quality Content Conundrum
Only one quarter of our survey participants said they were highly effective at developing high-quality thought leadership content. We asked several questions about how they develop their content and maintain quality (Exhibit 8):
- Three-quarters know what topics are in and out of bounds.
- Two-thirds have explicit standards for content, and they usually enforce them. But nearly half the time (when they have to enforce them), marketers ask top management to intervene and stop substandard content from being published. In less than a quarter of the firms with content standards are marketers given the final authority on publishing decisions.
- Article development is a largely messy process. In working with company subject experts to publish articles, only half use outlines before they write prose. In one out of five companies, those subject experts do the writing. Only about one in seven uses structured outlines to help SMEs and marketing coalesce their ideas.
Exhibit 8: They Won’t Publish Just Anything
How Important is Primary Research, and What Types?
We asked two questions about this:
- Looking at four types of “big” content (primary research, books, articles in prestigious journals and self-published white papers), which ones did they use in their most successful thought leadership campaign of the last three years? What was the best type of content?
- When it comes down to primary research, what type is most effective? Surveys? Case study interviews? Interviews with company experts about their client work? Secondary research? What is the best type of research?
Let’s dive into each one.
We asked our research participants to tell us what types of “big” content they used in their most successful thought leadership campaign since 2018. By “big,” we mean content that takes a lot of time and resources to prepare: books, studies, deep white papers, and articles in prestigious publications. These are all major efforts for thought leadership marketers. In contrast, “small” content such as blog posts, podcasts and LinkedIn articles take far less time.
The winner among the “big” content types was research studies. (Exhibit 9.) They were mentioned by 54% of participants, compared with 47% for the second most frequently used choice: white papers. Articles in prestigious external publications were cited by about quarter, and slightly fewer pointed to books.
Exhibit 9: Research and White Papers are Foundational Content Types
The most surprising find for us is not depicted above. It was how few companies made all four types of content – or at least three (excluding books, which can take years to develop) – key pieces of their most successful campaign. We expected to see the majority of companies (at the very least) saying they used a study, a white paper and an article(s) in external publications as key pieces of their best thought leadership campaign.
Instead, campaigns in most organizations appear to be focused around just one piece of “big” content – or even no big content.
The Most Effective Research
We didn’t find much agreement on the question of what kind of research was most effective. Was the best source qualitative research – e.g., case study interviews with clients and other companies on a certain topic?
Or was it quantitative research – structured surveys with close- and opened-questions fielded with dozens, hundreds or even thousands?
Or was it capturing the field experiences of company subject experts – of interviewing them and using that as a sort of field research?
Or perhaps it was secondary research – going online to find case examples and other data to support a point of view on a topic.
Marketers had to choose one of those four as being the most important content behind their best thought leadership campaign since 2018. What did we find? Not much unanimity on the best source of thought leadership content. (Exhibit 10.)
Exhibit 10: What Kind of Research Works Best in Thought Leadership? The Verdict Isn’t Clear
A slightly greater number of marketers said it was qualitative research than those who said it was capturing the field experiences of company subject experts. Quantitative research (surveys) was mentioned by half as many marketers. No one source of content stood head and shoulders above the other three.
How do firms use thought leadership research? As real research – that is, to explore new ground and produce new insights? (Or as Albert Einstein once said, “If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?”) Or is it to conduct research to more or less confirm what the firm already believes to be the truth? Deciding on which research design approach to take is the most fundamental choice for marketers to make in thought leadership.
We found that more B2B thought leadership marketers take the “invention” approach – using thought leadership to create new ground — over the “convention” approach (using it to confirm their existing views). Still, there wasn’t a huge difference: 55% percent in the “invention” camp and 45% in the “convention” camp. The latter camp is sizable. We believe Einstein would be disappointed. (Exhibit 11.)
Exhibit 11: Is the Research Designed to Unearth New Truths? In Most Cases, Yes.
The New Frontier: Thought Leadership Goes Interactive and Data-Driven
The era of the “flat” web page or PDF file is not coming to a close. But it certainly is no longer the only, or primary, way to present complex information. And thought leadership content – especially that based on research data – is just that: complex answers to complex problems.
The marketers we surveyed are already beginning to delve into the great new word of interactive content tools. Nearly half are doing interactive surveys that let viewers compare their situations to others. Nearly four in ten are using interactive charts and animated charts and graphs. (Exhibit 12.)
And a third are using “scrolly-telling” in their articles: As the web viewer scrolls down an article, photos appear, key messages unfold, and other items animate the screen to help tell the story beyond the prose.
All of us caught up in the print era of thought leadership content must begin to make way for digital graphic artists, data visualization, and other interactive content professionals to help the company present its expertise. We must be open to new, compelling ways to present data and to let viewers of that data to see it in ways that matter most to them.
Exhibit 12: On Their Way to Data Viz Wizardry?
Great Content vs. Stellar Marketing: What’s More Important in Thought Leadership?
So what makes the biggest difference in thought leadership campaigns that drive awareness, leads and revenue?
Is it exceptional content – bringing whole new insights into the marketplace?
Or is it marketing activities that generate an audience for that content?
Or is the way the firm’s website presents that content to viewers who land there and then are instructed about how to get more information on what they’ve read?
Or perhaps it’s none of the above: maybe it’s having salespeople who deeply understand the content and know how to use it with prospects who are intrigued by it.
From our experience, we know that all four factors are important, and others as well. However, we wanted our 314 survey participants to tell us what was more important than the other three. Their responses were telling. (Exhibit 13.)
Their answer was that it was the marketing programs that drove people to the firm’s website. That was by far the most popular choice, by about half. That beat great content. That, in turn, was seen as more important than having an engaging website or well-trained salespeople.
Exhibit 13: Marketers See Marketing as King and Content as Queen
“Small” Content: What Works?
Of course, “big” content such as research, books and white papers isn’t the only content in the thought leadership marketer’s toolkit. It also includes what we call “small” content: blogs, LinkedIn posts, podcasts, videos, live-streaming webinars, in-person speeches at conferences (pre-pandemic, of course!), and more. This small content typically takes far less time and fewer resources to prepare.
For their most successful campaign in the last three years, what small content did our surveyed companies use? The most frequent choices were all prose-based: opinion articles in external publications, and LinkedIn articles. More than a third used them. (Exhibit 14.)
In our view, the “print” mindset continues to dominate among our respondents – that is, they believe that thought leadership is best communicated in prose, whether or not it ends up in printed or online publications.
Less frequently mentioned were thought leadership formats that weren’t prose: webinars, live-stream videos, and podcasts, among them. Less than a third used them. This, we believe, will change dramatically this decade as more content bombards the average executive, and as more content developers and marketers master digital ways of presenting complex content.
Exhibit 14: Prisoners of a Print Mindset
Promoting Content (Big and Small): What Advertising is Working?
Whether it’s to promote “big” or “small” content, what are marketers using? Again, we asked them to tell us what they used in their best thought leadership campaign in the last three years.
We found something similar to the way that firms use different types of content in their biggest campaigns: They don’t use multiple promotional tools. No single promotional tool was mentioned by the majority of our research participants. That was surprising. It suggests that thought leadership campaigns are too focused on using just a few pieces of “big” and “small” content, and that they also overlook many options to promote that content. (Exhibit 15.)
It’s not “one-and-done” marketing – e.g., one tweet for one white paper – but it’s not terribly far off. Thought leadership marketers, on the whole, are nowhere near the Hollywood model of using multiple media to turn a movie into a blockbuster.
The most frequently used tools were low cost: email newsletters and emails, and organic social media (posting your own Tweets and LinkedIn messages, for example). Those come free.
The next most frequently used promotional tools come at a cost: advertorials (pay-for-play articles in external publications), social media advertising and search engine ads, and public relations outreach to get experts quoted in journalists’ articles.
Exhibit 15: An Incomplete Promotional Tool Bag
Our Next Report: Dissecting the Most Successful Thought Leadership Marketing Practices
The findings in this report provide a broad brush of thought leadership practices, as indicated by the 314 professionals we surveyed. In our next report, we will compare of practices of the most effective thought leadership marketers with the practices of the rest of our survey base –particularly against the respondents who said their thought leadership practices were ineffective. Those comparisons help us identify the strategies and tactics that lead to great thought leadership marketing.
- Report No. 2: The Uncommon Methods of the Best Thought Leadership Marketers (January 2021)
- Report No. 3: Comparing Thought Leadership Practices in Consulting, IT Services, Tech, Financial Services and Health Care (February 2021)
- Report No. 4: Comparing Thought Leadership Practices by Company Size and Region of World (March 2021)
About the Research
We fielded the survey from September through December 2020. We used Phronesis’ research base, the PTL database, and Buday TLP and Rattleback’s databases to generate 314 responses. (Survey respondents who came through PTL, Buday TLP or Rattleback’s solicitations took the survey on SurveyMonkey.)
The questionnaire consisted of 33 close-ended questions. They covered a wide range of issues of managing thought leadership activities in the pandemic:
- How senior management views thought leadership marketing
- How long their companies have been doing thought leadership marketing
- Their companies’ effectiveness at thought leadership marketing, and how they measure it
- Thought leadership strategy in their firms
- Spending as a percent of company revenue, headcount and publishing activity
- Content development practices (research and non-research based), including whether and how they maintain quality standards
- Article development approaches
- Website content presentation (including interactive design)
- Marketing and other audience building techniques
- The types of content sources, content dissemination and marketing practices in their most successful thought leadership campaign since 2018
- How marketing works with salespeople on managing leads from thought leadership campaigns
Our largest sectors were IT services and managing consulting, followed by tech, financial services, healthcare/pharma and accounting. (Exhibit 16.)
Exhibit 16: A Range of B2B Industries
A wide range of large, medium-sized and smaller B2B companies took the survey. About half were more than $100 million in annual revenue, and a fifth were at least $1 billion. (Exhibit 17.)
Exhibit 17: A Range of Large, Midsize and Small Companies
By Region of World
Two thirds of our participants were in North America (U.S. and Canada); 22% were in Europe (Germany, France, Italy and Spain) and the UK; 8% were in Asia-Pacific (India, Australia, Singapore); and 3% were in Latin America and other regions.
By Organizational Role
Three-quarters of our participants were in marketing. Another 20% were in editorial roles in B2B companies. The remainder were in research, firm management or service line management roles.
About the Researchers
This research was conducted by “Profiting from Thought Leadership,” a joint venture of Buday Thought Leadership Partners and Rattleback. Bob Buday and Jason Mlicki designed, analyzed and wrote the research report.
Our research partner, Phronesis Partners, fielded the survey to a broader set of thought leadership marketing professionals in North America, Europe and Asia-Pacific.
For further information on this research, contact:
Bob Buday, CEO, Buday Thought Leadership Partners (email: email@example.com)
Jason Mlicki, Principal, Rattleback (firstname.lastname@example.org)
 The CMO Survey, as mentioned in an Association of National Advertisers report, Dec. 2, 2020. https://www.ana.net/magazines/show/id/btob-2020-12-b2b-marketers-brace-for-2021
Download the PDF of this report: